The top 10 Northwestern football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
1. LB Anthony Walker Jr., Jr.
After a nice first season showing good promise with 51 tackles, Walker turned into the leader and star of a solid run defense coming up with All-Big Ten honors with 113 tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. At 6-1 and 235 pounds, he’s built like a middle linebacker, but he has the burst and pass rushing ability to work at either outside spot or be shot out of a cannon from his place on the inside. A dominant force, he came up with double-digit stops in six games with 19 tackles against Duke and 37 in a three-game midseason stretch. He’s got the Northwestern smarts, the speed to have played receiver in high school, and the hitting ability bring an intimidating thump, the Miami native has it all.
2. RB Justin Jackson, Jr.
The offense needed someone to work around, and Jackson turned out to be it following up a 1,187-yard, ten score freshman season with 1,344 yards and five touchdowns. There’s only one problem for a guy who handled the ball well over 300 times last season – he’s not built for it. At 5-11 and 190 pounds he has decent size, but he’s not bulky and doesn’t bring any power. Shifty and smooth more than a tough-guy workhorse, he still managed to carry the offense with 100 yards or more eight times. He struggled in a midseason stretch, and then busted out of it ripping up Penn State for 186 yards. Very athletic and with the trust of the coaching staff to handle the ball as much as he can, he’s still the offense.
3. S Godwin Igwebuike, Jr.
At 6-0 and 200 pounds, he’s built well and comes up big against the run. He led the team in interceptions as a freshman coming up with three in his time as a spot starter, and last year he came into his own finishing second on the team with 73 stops with five broken up passes. The former star high school running back has great range and is quick around the ball making 14 tackles in the loss to Tennessee and ten against Illinois. However, if he’s making lots of plays, usually that means the front seven isn’t quite doing its job.
4. WR/KR Solomon Vault, Jr.
Part running back, part receiver, all kick returner, Vault is a special weapon taking off for 159 yards on the ground, catching 11 passes for 95 yards, and rocking as a kickoff return man averaging over 26 yards per try with two touchdowns, taking one back for a key score in the win over Duke and returning another for a touchdown in the two-point win over Penn State. The 5-10, 190-pounder will work mostly as a receiver now to give the passing game another dangerous target, but all that matters is getting the ball in his hands on the move on a consistent basis.
5. DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, Sr.
Is this the year when he’s going to blow up into the superstar everyone thought he’d be as a top recruit? The 6-3, 250-pounder was one of the best defensive players ever to come in under Pat Fitzgerald with high school sprinter speed, good bulk, and the upside to become a devastating pass rusher. He hasn’t been a bust – coming up with 19 tackles and five sacks last season and 13 career stats – but he has yet to turn inot the terror he was supposed to be from the start. He’ll hold down one job on the end, and now is his time to take his game to a whole other level.
6. QB Clayton Thorson, Soph.
Can he be more of a high-powered passer? It was his offense to run as a freshman, and he was good enough to lead the way to a big season for the team even though he completed just 51% of his passes for 1,522 yards and seven scores and nine picks, while finishing second on the team with 397 rushing yards and five scores. He failed to connect on half his passes in seven of his last eight games, came up with three of his touchdown passes in the win over Ball State – and just four in the other 12 games – and did absolutely nothing down the field, but he showed this spring that he’s ready to be more of a passer. If needed, he can take off and run at any time coming up with 126 yards and a score in the win over Nebraska. At 6-4 and 220 pounds he has the size, and he has the athleticism, but he has to do more with the offense.
7. OT Eric Olson, Sr.
A fixture now at right tackle, he started 21 games over the last two seasons and locked down the job last season. A good enough pass protector to work on the left side if needed, he’s a far better run blocker and more of a key part of the line puzzle on the right side – he could play guard if needed. At 6-6 and 295 pounds he has the right frame and build for the job, and he’s great at getting downfield and coming up with the second-level hit for the ground attack from his spot on the outside.
8. WR Austin Carr, Sr.
While he only caught 16 passes for 302 yards and two scores, he finished second on the team in yards averaging a whopping 18.88 yards per catch. At 6-1 and 195 he has decent size and good enough deep speed to stretch the field from time to time – averaging over 14 yards per catch in his first season – with 61 yards on three grabs against Illinois and 61 more early on against Eastern Illinois on two grabs. He’s got the athleticism and he has the experience. The passing game that needs so much help needs him to break out.
9. C/G Ian Park, Sr.
Able to work at either center or guard, he started out has part of the guard rotation in his first two seasons before last year stepping up after the beginning of the season as the starting center. He grew into the role and now should be the leader of the front five as a solid run blocker and good-sized veteran who’ll fit in when needed. At 6-4 and 305 pounds he’s got great size for the interior and he’s a thumper. Not really a quick pass protector, he’s at his best in a phone booth for the hard yard.
10. SB Garrett Dickerson, Jr.
It’s his job to be the do-it-all Superback in the Northwestern system. A great get for the program out of New Jersey, Ohio State, Alabama and other big boys wanted him, but he has yet to break out for the Wildcats. At 6-3 and 245 pounds he’s got great size with good blocking skills and excellent quickness as a possible much-needed dangerous target – potentially. It hasn’t happened yet, but he caught 12 passes for 124 yards last season and has too much talent not to become a factor. He’s a receiver, and now he has to show it off.